Multi-award-winning lifestyle, travel and wine photographer Matt Wilson is internationally renowned for his ability to show wine in a completely new light. In this conversation, Matt shares why fun is so important in wine photography and offers his expertise on how wineries can better harness the power of visuals in a digital world where everyone has become a photographer.
You are a photographer in wine and lifestyle, and I was reading on your website that you said, “The moment someone recognizes you have a style is the moment you know you need to change it,” which I love. How did you develop your style of photography and sort of what was your inspiration?
I started in photography many years ago. My first professional work was in 1986, so a long time ago, and I was a skateboard photographer. Then I worked in fashion for a little bit, and then I worked in music photography. Those three genres I incorporate into my lifestyle photography now, my wine photography. I just want there to be life and action. I started in the wine industry by accident, by marrying a winemaker. I had no intention of ever photographing wineries or wine makers or anything, but I married my wife who’s a winemaker. I moved to Chile, and all the people I met through my wife were winery, vineyard owners, winemakers, growers, so my world became the wine industry.
How is photographing wine different than maybe some of these other subjects that you work with?
I try and make it not different. I don’t think of it as, “oh, that’s a Burgundy 1982” or anything. I just think it’s a photograph and I’ve got to light it and make it look interesting or make it into a lifestyle image. It could be a bar of chocolate. It could be a shoe. It could be a band on stage.
I have fans. I’ve got my enemies. I mean, people still to this day, say “you’re an insult to the wine industry”.
If I photograph someone punching a bottle of wine or smashing a bottle of wine, they think I’m insulting wine and I’m really not.[When] I think of selling wine, it’s lifestyle. Sell a lifestyle story. I’m not saying there isn’t a place of terroir. But for me, wine is… I always say the three Fs for wine: fun, family and friends. Or food as well, so four Fs.
I worked for MOVI in Chile, which is a movement of independent vineyards. They’ve got these little farmers, three horses, and living in an adobe building. That’s the side I want to show, that side of it. I’m not keen on the sort of rich owner standing there, like, “This is what my great-grandfather planted,” or “This is what I inherited.” That side of it doesn’t interest me.
I think what you’re alluding to is that a lot of times in wine, we rely so heavily on the language, right? It’s all about words and tasting notes and describing what it is that you’re experiencing.
I think visuals have this ability to capture that full experience in a way that words can’t quite do. I think we’re seeing this. I mean, we’re seeing that visuals and pictures are becoming even more essential or part of our world now with the rise of Instagram and influencers. We are seeing that people are using their words a little bit less, maybe, and using their photos a little bit more. I’m curious for your take on that. What do you think photos can do that words can’t?
I’d actually be curious for your take on Instagram and the whole world of influencers that are producing all of this content with highly-staged photos. Does that seem like competition to you? Has it changed the way you work?
It’s changed the way I work. I use Instagram and I like Instagram. I think there’s a lot of good Instagram, but there’s a lot more bad Instagram.
I’m weirded out by the influencer thing. I always think if you need to talk about influencers, they’re not doing a good job. I think, really, you need to say that you’re an influencer? I guess the top influencers are these pop stars. Here, give someone $3 million and every now and then they’ll post a picture of your wine.
I know I’ve had arguments with people in the wine industry about it. They’re like, “No, you don’t like influencers.” No, I’m not saying I don’t like influencers, but if you have to talk about them, they’re failing.
Back to your first point, why photographs are different from words—and there are some great wine writers. You know, I was reading some Oz Clarke stuff the other day, and I loved it. Whereas with my photographs, you can add your own sort of feeling to the photograph. It can be a wine, someone in a bath of corks and wine everywhere, but you’ll have your own vision. A lot of these photographs, we’ve worked for weeks to work out how to take them without dying. I don’t know if you saw the chainsaw one. It took about three years to plan. There’s £5,000 worth of equipment that went in that photo.
Yeah. Going back to what you were saying then about Instagram and that there are some people who use it really well and there are some people who just really don’t. What then would you say are best practices? I’m thinking about this in particular for wineries or winemakers wanting to use digital platforms to better tell their own stories.
Work on the composition. Don’t just photograph a bottle of wine or the label saying this was great last night with paella. Tell it as a story. On Instagram you’ve got a lot more words as well. Use the words and the images.
It’s got to be a good image. Most people look at an image on Instagram for one second, two seconds. If it’s a sunset, don’t just have a good sunset, have something else going on. If you’ve got a picture of a guy harvesting, ask the guy a couple of questions, if you speak the language, what’s your name?
Instead of just like “a harvest”, it’s “this is Pablo Hernandez, the harvester, picking Cabernet Sauvignon he harvested for two months and then he goes and harvests solids”. Add a little story to it. Don’t be scared to ask someone.
Animals are always good, animals sell. Animals at wineries get more hits or sell better.
When I came to Chile, I was scared of horses. I actually have a phobia. I have hippophobia, which is proper phobia of horses. Now I can ride, badly, but I can photograph. Fifteen years ago, I couldn’t even look at a horse. I couldn’t even look at a horse on TV.
Wow, so how did you get over that?
My wife, she’s a horse rider, she has a horse. And she came up one day at a winery on a horse, and I just stood there shaking. She said, “Get on the horse. It’s not going to bite you, it’s not going to eat you.” And I was there, terrified, and she said, “Just get up, now”. And when I got up, I just went for it. I got up and sat behind her, and she rode around the winery.
Wineries are increasingly turning to these digital platforms to tell their stories. But we have been finding in the industry that there’s this sense of fatigue, or there’s so much content out there that it becomes challenging to have your visuals, your stories cut through the noise, I guess you could say. What are ways that we can convey these classic signs of quality, things like where a wine comes from, its sense of origin, its sense of place, and convey that through visuals in a more modern, relatable kind of way?
I think the general consumer, and I hope I’m not stereotyping the general consumer, but they want to see more. I think they’re not interested in sitting there with five great wine. And what I’ve seen a few of is these virtual winery tours, and I’ve done a little bit of work on that, where you’re going into the winery. It can be the wine maker, it can be the owner, whoever, taking you around. You get to see that winery. Where the wine is made, where the wine is grown.
Well, Matt, I have one more question for you before we part ways. One of the questions that we ask at the end of every interview with one of our guests has to do with what we call our three sacred cows. If you could keep anything from the pre-COVID world, or even from this time since COVID, that you think are ways of doing that are really important for us to take into the future, what would three of those things be for you?
I think that I speak to my family a lot more in England, a lot more now than I did pre-COVID. Every Monday we have a one o’clock Zoom. It’s my mum and dad, my sister, my nieces, and children. And we each play a song. But we talk to each other every week for an hour and a half on that.
That’s going to stay. We all love it. We all look forward to it.
It’s always the travel with me. I come from a family that have always traveled. All of us travel constantly. My mother has probably been to 200 countries. And she’s nearly 80, and she travels. I mean, she said to me the other week, she said, “Three months in England is the longest time I’ve spent in England since 1982.”
So, I’d say travel. I’ve always loved traveling. I’ve always needed to travel. And social meals.
Travel, social meals, and then from COVID, I’d say the family Zoom things. Is that a good answer?
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. To hear the full discussion, go to:
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